BootsnAll Travel Network

Archive for April, 2008

« Home

Snails with Yanis

Wednesday, April 30th, 2008

Cretan Snail

One Cretan speciality I wanted to try as soon as I spotted the main ingredients piled up in net bags in wicker baskets at the greengrocer’s were snails.

I refrained from purchasing one of those bags (about 7€ per kg.), remembering my promise about not bringing fish, fowl or other creatures into the homestay kitchenette. Besides, I didn’t have the first idea how to set about preparing the things.

None of the lower-end tavernas had snails on their menu. I wished for access to a kitchen with a friendly chef who could teach me about them.

Enter Yanis.

We had asked him whether the Cosmogonia Bar does food. To be honest, late evenings the place is plenty busy serving beer (each order is accompanied by different nibbles), and the bar is surrounded by cafés and restaurants that do. Yanis said he serves breakfast and lunchtime snacks in the season, and yes, mezedhes might be a good idea to stimulate business during early evenings. After all he did have a kitchen.

So we talked about Cretan food, and we talked about snails and Yanis said: “Why don’t I make some for you tomorrow? Come at about eleven, then you can taste them.”

And I said: “Oh, can I watch you and learn how to prepare them?”

It was early in the evening of the fateful night that almost ended in a bar fight. As predicted, the following morning my head was nearly killing me and the tension hadn’t worn off. I was in two minds about going to see Yanis, but I was damn glad that I did, even if I was a bit monosyllabic. He had been expecting me.

We spent almost the entire afternoon in the kitchen, batch-processing a kilogram of snails, with Yanis nearly forgetting about the customers who trickled into the bar every now and then.

All in the name of friendship.
[read on]

Good Days, Bad Days

Tuesday, April 29th, 2008

I have an odd superstition, picked up on some of my longer trips. I believe that, when travelling, a good day is usually followed by a bad day and, if I’m lucky, that in turn is followed by an unremarkable day, and so on.

The days after Easter looked to be unremarkable at best. A chilly wind blew through town, making sitting outside unpleasant and whipping up the waves which trashed most of our plans.

However, it was ideal weather for walking.

We had run out of things to do, so we eventually followed the advise of the hillwalkers with whom we shared the homestay’s courtyard. But only because the tiny village of Anidri was barely a stroll away.

Over the course of the morning, leaden clouds built up over the mountains, whisked along by the wind, but they posed no threat. At worst a few heavy drops spotted the pavement, and the clouds would keep the heat at bay. So we filled our waterbottles and set off.

The winding road was easy to walk, if a little boring. We often stopped at the verge to admire interesting flowers or make room for the goats that ran past us in small clusters, following the hooting of their master’s car in the distance. A twenty-first century approach to goat-herding

Just as it began to feel monotonous, we reached the bijou white-washed buildings of Anidri and, even better, found that the village café was open. It was lunchtime.

We were the only guests to sit in the outside garden, overlooking the green valley and the sea in the distance. A plane tree offered shade against the re-emergent sun.
Lamb Pluckings
It got better: one of the dishes chalked up on the board was translated as ‘fried intestines’: lamb pluckings. A rare delicacy, normally much sought after. They must have slaughtered a lot of lambs on Easter Sunday.

Although these were fresh.

The proprietor laughed. “Easter is long ago! These are from today. Kill the lamb, pull of the skin, roll up the intestines, grill over charcoal and five hours later it’s in our stomach!” He laughed again with pleasure.

It was pretty special to share.


Yanis, it turned out, had missed out on Easter altogether. The previous evening, when we went for our customary beer, he told us that he’d kept the bar open until seven, and a group of drunken Albanians nearly started a fight because they didn’t want to leave. They foolishly decided to drive back to Chania. He ended up having to call the police.

“Trouble,” he said. “Too much trouble!”

We asked him whether he’d had Easter lunch with his family and he shook his head. “My brother called at one, but I was asleep. I woke up and it was evening. Lunch was finished. Back to work.”

It hadn’t been his day. We bought him a beer and he sat down at our table, in between keeping an eye on the bar, servicing the music player and occasionally dropping by at other tables. He dipped in and out of his chair like a yoyo.

“We didn’t mean to keep you…” I began, but he had already finished another sip, exchanged a quick smile and was back behind the bar, holding the headphones to one ear while inserting a CD with his other hand. Apparently custom dictates that, when somebody buys you a beer, you finish the round in each other’s company. Now we were keeping him from his work.

But Yanis didn’t seem to mind. When we made to go, he placed two more bottles of Mythos on the table and we continued to chat in between his getting up to do a spot of DJ-ing.

Other than that, the day had been unremarkable.

So what did today have in store?
[read on]

Cretan Cats

Monday, April 28th, 2008

Palaeochora is overrun with semi-feral cats which will shirk away when you approach them, having doubtlessly been at the receiving end of many a kick and cussing.

They don’t bother the locals, but they have an eye for tourists. Sit anywhere at a table in the open air to enjoy your meal and they will appear, peeling away from the shade, and blink at you until you give them some food.

They are patient. They will sit and blink until they drift off to sleep. And eventually they will wear me down.

The first of them appeared at our doorstep when I was preparing the famous chicken. Cats can’t cope with chicken bones, so I brought out the parson’s nose and the cat’s eyes grew big and round, nearly filling her entire face. She kept them wide open in wonderment as she dispatched the delicacy.

The trouble is that with every morsel you give them, their number doubles.

Homestay Cats

The number of cats at the homestead stabilised at three, with some fighting at the periphery. All of them were in pitiful shape, with the otherwise healthy looking tabby coughing pitifully and—so I noticed when he turned around—bare patches marking where the mange had begun to take its toll. The emaciated tiny female that was always at his side looked like she had days to live, at most. But despite their pitiful shape they ate whenever they got the chance.

The remaining female, our first houseguest, was in better shape, although she might have been pregnant and appearances deceptive. She had a boyfriend too, but he wasn’t allowed to set foot on the terrace. We often saw her slink across the road to where he was waiting and they would walk off together, staggering into each other.

I didn’t know cats formed pair bonds. But I never took them for social animals either, at least not from what I knew about my own cat who was Supreme Ruler over the Neighbourhood—including the dogs.

As with old Mietze, you had to be patient to gain their affection, but when they overcame their fear they proved to be hungry for it. The homestay cats remained distant, but this beautiful white farm cat, which we encountered on the way back from the neighbouring village of Anidri, wouldn’t let go of John’s legs even after being approached by a curious sheep and—heartstoppingly—by a huge dog who took no notice of her but made it clear that we’d better move on.

White Cat

Don’t be the Lamb

Sunday, April 27th, 2008

Easter Fireworks

There was no build-up.

I had expected everything to be closed, but quite to the contrary, the street was lively as we stepped out at 10 p.m. to look for some entertainment.

We settled on what was quickly becoming our regular: Cosmogonia Bar where the locals outnumbered the tourists, the atmosphere was convival and great music played as the night wore on.

And wear on it did: at a quarter past eleven there was still no direction in the way people were ambling up and down the street.

“I think I should go,” I said to John. “I have no idea where everybody is supposed to come from, but come midnight it’s going to be packed out there. Perhaps I should climb up the hill for a better view.”

‘Out there’ was the church yard, barely fifty metres down the road from the bar. Directly behind it was the hill that led up to the fortress. From there I was hoping to get a good vantage point over the crowd that was supposed to gather a few short moments from now, lighting candles at the stroke of midnight, like twinkling stars that announced to the world that Christos anesti—Christ is risen—and Easter had arrived.

I had a beer to finish first. When I stepped out barely a quarter of an hour later, the street had miraculously filled with people. Young and old, visitors and locals, huddled shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the church entrance, awaiting the announcement with bated breath, candles in hand.

There was no way of getting through to the path that led up the hill.

Somebody pressed a candle into my hand. I turned to see another tourist behind me, grinning.

I shook my head. “I’m a atheist!”

“Me too. Enjoy!”

From the direction of the church, flickering lights began to appear. Already?

I handed the candle over to somebody who must have dropped theirs. I wasn’t worthy of it, but I hoped the guy who’d given it to me wouldn’t mind.

Easter Candles

Truth be told, I was too busy clicking away—with the flash off but feeling somewhat dirty nevertheless.

Then fireworks exploded behind the church tower. And something else: shots rang in the air and charges of dynamite shook the ground.

I became a little worried. The land wasn’t parched, and Easter happens every year, but yet…

Suddenly the scene turned unreal. As if in a dream, I watched great orange tongues of flame licking at the hillside, building up into waves that crested the trees and broke at the wall of the fortress, threatening to engulf it.

If the wind turned—just a little—the town would be next.

“Do you think that’s staged?” I whispered to the guy behind me.

He looked grim. “Doesn’t look staged to me. But by all means snap away. Don’t mind the town or the people.”

I stood frozen, staring at the flames, while all around me the people cheered on, oblivious.

Easter Celebrations

[read on]

It’s all Greek to Me…

Friday, April 25th, 2008

Pebble Beach
“Lemme see: e-s-t—estiatorio, restaurant and p-s-i-…p-s-a…psarotaverna—fish restaurant! And also g-a-l, gala-something. Probably a milk bar as well. They tend to have stuff I like.”

We were studying the signs along the Pebble Beach Parade in Palaeochora, looking for refreshments. The promise of a milkshake alured me, so I walked closer to the English language menu. “Oh, Fish Restaurant ‘Galaxia’… I didn’t realise that galaxy was Greek as well!”

John thought for a moment. “But of course! The Milky Way, Galaxy. From the Greek for milk.”

It turns out that we already speak a lot of Greek. There are obvious words like telephone and hippopotamus. Or parts of words such as pedi for child, chronos for time. And dentist is odontriatos. The numbers are everywhere: heptathlon, decathlon, icosahedron, pentagram etc.

Travelling in Greece, trying to decipher the signs, throws up more obscure links: ‘bus stop’ is stasi leoforioo. And ‘thank you’ is pronounced efkastisto, but it’s actually written something like ‘eucharisto’. Now I know what they meant by ‘eucharist’ back in church.

There are countless other examples which don’t come to mind right now, in addition to a whole slew of scientific terms.

We speak a lot of Greek.

Urmentrude’s Dwelling

Friday, April 25th, 2008

In many towns and villages around Crete, plane trees line the streets, their branches trained to grow near horizontally with the aid of weights tied to their tips. During the hot summer these trees offer welcome shade, as well as gaudy splashes of green. In the smaller settlements they are often found at entrances, and this was also true for the Anonymous Homestay where we stayed during our time in Palaeochora.
'Anonymous' Homestay, Entrance

The trees, or in this case their support stuctures, also give shelter to other species. The post that supported the branch which grew across the terrace entry had a thumb-sized hole in it, from which buzzing emanated at times. This was the home of Urmentrude, a European carpenter bee (Xylocopa violacea).

Every twenty minutes to half-an-hour throughout the day, Urmentrude would shoot out of the hole (which barely fitted her girth) and dart off towards the gardens and shrubs heavy with flowers. In the mornings, when we were having coffee outside, she would stay around and circle for a while, as if inspecting us. I flinched at first—carpenter bees are big—but she never approached too closely, nor would she waste her energy on something not perceived as a threat.

Still, you wouldn’t want to mess with her kind.

Despite her massive proportions, she was always too quick for me to get a picture, so here’s one of her dwelling:

Urmantrude's Dwelling

Recently, carpenter bees have become established in England, one of many continental/southern European insects which may be extending their ranges as a result of climate change (for the doubters among you: zoologists have kept tap on these phenomena for at least twenty years, as I remember from my undergraduate days).


Thursday, April 24th, 2008

“Kotopoolo, kotopoolo…” Sophia fell silent, shaking her head.

She had made it sound like the clucking of a hen. I thought that ‘pollo’, the Spanish word for chicken, was derived from the Greek, but it makes no sense. ‘Pollo’ (po-yo) doesn’t sound like any noise a chicken would make.

But I digress. Sophia wasn’t pleased. She shook her head again and muttered something in Greek, trying for the right words. “Spaghetti,” she said finally, pointing at the tiny stove with it’s single hotplate and a much smaller plate meant for heating jugs of Greek coffee. She looked disapprovingly at the herbs on the shelf, the spice box and the bottles of oils and vinegar.

“Spagetthi OK,” she reiterated and walked away, still shaking her head.

I may have been forgiven for imagining the homestay’s ‘communal kitchen facilities’ to be dominated by a large stove—perhaps an aga—with cooking paraphernalia hanging on hooks along the walls and wooden cutting boards surrounded by tins and jars. Somewhere in my imagination, a BBQ pit also featured, along with a roasting spit where we might gather to roast an Easter lamb, if one could be procured in time.

I didn’t imagine the facilities to be more along the lines of a tea kitchen, although to be fair there were several of them, and I was the only traveller to bring my own set of knives. Despite the place being fully booked, most of the kitchenettes remained unused.

Well, it was too late. The chicken that was defrosting on the sink needed cooking.

Lemon Chicken with Wheat and Salad

Lemon Chicken

Take one chicken and joint it. Brown it in batches in a pot to which you have added a small slug of vegetable oil and a generous slosh of olive oil (the vegetable oil prevents the latter from burning. Don’t ask me why, but this trick also works with butter).

Set aside the pieces and add a roughly chopped onion to the pot. As soon as this has softened, add 2-3 cloves crushed garlic, some bay leaves and about 2 tsp of dried oregano (frying oily herbs increases their flavour).

When the mix begins to smell aromatic, add 300ml of white wine, return the chicken, add the zest and juice of 1 lemon (I also keep some preserved peel in my spice box, and that goes in as well), a handful of green olives and—since this dish wasn’t going to be braised—enough water or stock to just cover.

I couldn’t resist the tiny courgettes I’d spotted at the greengrocer’s (nor, for that matter, the aubergines, peppers, fresh garlic, spinach and whatnot), so I placed them on top, covered the pot and let the lot simmer for 45 minutes. Greek courgettes are thick-skinned and benefit from slowly steaming in their own juices.

Season and serve with bread, salad and couscous or wheat (which I managed to cook up on the tiny coffe plate).

As for the spinach which I’d also bought: it was nice prepared á’l horta, washed, steamed for a minute or so, with just the water that clings to the leaves, seasoned and tossed with a squirt of lemon juice and plenty of olive oil.

I made sure to keep the kitchen scrupulously clean and refrained from bringing further chickens, lambs or fishes onto the premises.

The next time she found me cooking, Sophia approved. She had come around with a cup of coffee and the divine lemon and vanilla cookies with which she spoils her guests.

She smiled. “Ah, spaghetti!”

No, a sausage, pepper and aubergine stew. I still had to use up that bounty from the greengrocer’s. When it was done, we carried it across to the courtyard to share with the other guests.

There’s no need to be over-ambitious when it comes to cooking on the road.

Anonymous Homestay, Chania

A Walk around Ayia Roumeli

Thursday, April 24th, 2008

Crete in spring recalls the flower meadows I played in as a kid. But childhood memories tend to be exaggerated. You would never get that many flowers blossoming all at the same time.

According to the guidebook, it is the climate that forces such an exuberance on the vegetation. The summers here are a mirror image of our winters. The relentless sun sucks the life out of the soil: trees drop their leaves, herbs lie dormant or dead. The flowers have to cram as much into the spring as possible before the land is becoming parched once again.

As a result, Crete in spring resembles a garden.
Crete Springtime Flowers

It is also deceptively quiet. By late April, visitors start to trickle back, but the majority of those who joined us on the boat from Sfakia were hillwalkers, making the most of the springtime beauty and relatively mild temperatures.

As we ferry-hopped across to Palaochora, we passed idyllic bays and villages which looked like an earthly version of paradise. However, the majority of the buildings are hotels. In the season, tourists can outnumber locals ten to one. Still, it takes nothing away from an idyll such as Loutro:

The walkers were disappointed to learn that, despite the mild weather, Samaria Gorge would remain closed until May 1st, but truth be told we were relieved. An 18 kilometre hike wasn’t on our agenda. However, the village of Ayia Roumeli—the final stop before the boat to Palaeochora—lies at the foot of the gorge and a little of the spectacular scenery can be found a short walk inland, which made me reconsider; perhaps we should visit when we return another time.

Walking along the pebble path, it became clear that—while Crete in spring may resemble a garden—it is anything but tame. In fact it can be downright alien.

The strange structures that dangled from the tips of pine branches were not seed pods but the communal nests of thousands of pine processionary caterpillars which—I discovered to my relief when reaching up to one—had long since moved on. Touching the caterpillars’ bristles is said to be more painful than a scorpion sting. I wouldn’t want to experience either.

And while the sea around this area of Crete is an aquatic desert, with only a few patches of seeweed and small shoals of fry scattered about, the same can’t be said about the land, at least not at this time of the year. There may not be many winkles on the rocks, but there were snails on the cliffs:
Rock Snails

Here, man and nature are close. This old church in Old Ayia Roumeli is a mere stroll away from the harbour area with its string of restaurants and souvenier shops and just a few steps from the road where hordes of visitors and cars will file past when the season starts in a matter of days, but that doesn’t seem to disturb the birds that built their nest underneath the tiny belfry.

Sabbath Night

Monday, April 21st, 2008


This is Milos in Frangokastello, Region Chania, Crete. And this is the view from inside the old mill:


There is nothing like an ancient windmill on a secluded beach to listen to Black Sabbath on a full moon night. But when the moon climbs higher into the sky and the crest of the waves glisten as if with phosphorescence and the choppy wavelets in the bay look like dancing shards of diamonds—this is when you put on Iron Maiden. By candlelight. And you wish that the party would never end…

The party’s moved on to Palaeochora now, but I’ll never forget that night at the old mill.

The Long Way Round to Frangokastello

Saturday, April 19th, 2008

Thimia, the woman in charge of the guests’ wellbeing (ours and that of one other bloke), carried a tray over before we had finished sitting down and placed a plate piled high with pastries and toasties on the low table. The heady smell of chocolate hit me from what had to be large cups of sweet cocoa. I thought about asking for coffee, but when I parted the foam—so thick that a lesser spoon would have stood upright in it—the night-black liquid underneath turned out to be coffee, bitter and strong.

I bent down to sniff at the pastries, and noticed that the smell emanated from a large piece of marble cake. We were still ogling the selection when Thimia reappeared with a second, identical platter and set it in front of John. “Hungrrry!” She grinned, flashing white teeth, and beckoned us to dig in.

After wolfing down the marble cake, followed by a cheese and ham toastie, I thought I should restrain myself a little. Perhaps I could leave that soggy looking croissant—but John had taken a bite off his and chocolate was dribbling down his chin. Or that plain-looking roll? It was filled with apricot jam.

Oh well.

When we were about to burst, Thimia reappeared with two tall glasses of freshly squeezed juice from the sweet, deep-coloured Cretan oranges which graced trees in the gardens and groves we had spied from the bus window. I needn’t have worried about Sarakosti, the Greek Orthodox equivalent of Lent. The prescribed nistisima food makes no mention of chocolate or oranges, even though ham and cheese are frowned upon.

After this breakfast of kings, it was time to bid farewell to the Doge Hotel and the children playing in the street in front of it. A short way down the pavement their parents and relatives were busy setting out the tables at the ‘to Xani’ taverna.

We’d be back, that was for sure.


There was no particular rush. The only bus to Frangokastello would have left at two, but the people at the bus station confirmed what our landlady at the mill had told us: the road between Vriesses and Frangokastello was closed and not due to re-open for several days.

According to the bus company’s website, it should be possible for passengers to ‘progress from Vriesses’ (that info is now out of date and has been taken down). I wasn’t sure whether that meant that taxies—but not buses—could get past the roadworks, but if so it would save us money. As nice as Chania’s Old Town is, we decided to press on and find out.

Vriesses is a charming little town that stretches along a shady road leading into the mountains. The KTEL bus to Rethymnon and on to Heraklion stops there and we got out right next to one of the many kafenios that line the street. I left John there and went shopping. Half an hour later, laden with bags full of essentials which I doubted we would find in the small village of Frangokastello during Sarakosti, it was time to arrange for onward transport.

The taxi stand down the street was empty. We sat down in the adjoining restaurant for another drink and watched the surprisingly lively bus- and coach traffic, on their way to Chania or Rethymnon. There are at least 18 buses a day in each direction run by one of the two main companies alone.

When our coffee arrived, I asked the woman about taxies to Frangokastello.

“Frangokastello?” She pointed at the bus that had just rolled to a stop in front of the premises. “Frangokastello! That one!”

I smiled and shook my head. “The road is closed. Maybe taxi?”

But there was still no driver, so John went to make enquiries in the ticket office across the street.

At the same time, a taxi pulled up in front of the service station where the bus had just left. Vriesses is a very compact town.

The driver shook his head when I approached him. “Road is closed. You have to go via Rethymnon.”

He appeared reluctant to enter into further negotiations, so I waited for John to come back. I had given him the number of a cab company in Sfakia, who would presumably also be unable to help us. But I had an idea—and at the same time the driver, now parked at the taxi rank next to our table—turned back around to me. Perhaps he had the same idea. Perhaps we could arrange a relay: he’d drop us at one end of the roadworks and the guy from Sfakia would pick us up at the other. After all, he was unlikely to get many fares otherwise.

John was frowning when he reached us. “You know what, that bus was going to Frangokastello!”

“Don’t talk nonsense. The road’s closed!”

“It’s going the long way round.”


Oh yes, indeed. Apparently some locals who had to go to Sfakia had coerced the bus company to run a service all the way round via Plakias in the neighbouring province, and back up along the coast. I checked my watch: the timing was right. It could well have been the alleged once-daily bus via Frangokastello which, according to the schedule at Chania bus station, shouldn’t even run on Saturdays outside the season. And if so, it would be travelling along the route which the taxi driver now offered to take us for 70 Euros.

It was a fair price, but easily the most expensive cup of coffee we ever had.

The Fort, Frangokastello

But it was worth it when we got there.